The ubiquity of smartphones and their suffocating grasp on people's attention makes me long for the days when they didn't yet exist.
There was a time, not too long ago in fact, when people were more inclined to make eye contact with each other and engage in a thoughtful, two-way conversation. While I'm not quite declaring the end of this fundamental social function, I am lamenting its slow demise. Having a good conversation is rapidly becoming a lost art.
Fortunately, though, there are some really gifted conversationalists who continue to bear the torch and light the way for the rest of us, like Teri Gross, the long-time host and co-executive producer of NPR's "Fresh Air." Gross has interviewed thousands of people over the course of her four-decade career.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Gross offers advice on a question that is relevant to all of us: How do you have a good conversation? Here are just four of the several useful tips she shares:
1. Break the ice.
The four words that can work in any situation, according to Gross, are "tell me about yourself." They're open-ended enough to avoid embedding assumptions that might make the other person uncomfortable, like whether the person is currently employed or not.
"The beauty in opening with "tell me about yourself" is that it allows you to start a conversation without the fear that you're going to inadvertently make someone uncomfortable or self-conscious. Posing a broad question lets people lead you to who they are."
I've seen a lot of conversations become one-sided and focused on the person who knows how to dominate the dialogue. That person is simply not expressing interest in the other person. It might seem obvious, but Gross's suggestion that you demonstrate curiosity in the other person is one that not everyone observes as well as they probably should, according to my experience.
"Being genuinely curious, and wanting to hear what the other person is telling you. I can respond to what somebody saying by expressing if I'm feeling sympathy or empathy, and explaining why."
Having interviewed thousands of people, Gross understands the value of preparing well. "It helps to organize your thoughts beforehand by thinking about the things you expect you'll be asked and then reflecting on how you might answer."
I've found preparation to be valuable even in other professional or social settings, where I know in advance that I might be having conversations with certain people. I can think through my answers to some of the possible questions I might be asked.
4. Pay attention to body language.
It can be a more challenging skill to develop, but an important one nonetheless: Observe the other person's body language. Eye contact --or lack of it --is a big give-away for me. If someone is not making at least some level of consistent eye contact with me, it's a sign their mind is somewhere else, and we both need to move on.
"Try to pick up on when you've kind of lost somebody's attention," says Gross. "That way, you can avoid boring your fellow interlocutor to death or holding someone up from getting to wherever they may actually need to be."